Teaching Science with Google Earth

Modified September 8, 2008

What is Google Earth?

Google Earth is a geobrowser that accesses satellite and aerial imagery as well as other geographic data over the internet to represent the Earth as a three-dimensional globe. Geobrowsers are also known as virtual globes or Earth browsers. Google also refers to Google Earth as a "geographic browser". Other examples of geobrowsers are NASA's World Wind and ESRI's ArcGIS Explorer. Google Earth is available on the web for free as well for purchase in more advanced versions. While the free version offers numerous features that are useful in an educational setting, the Plus and Pro versions offer additional capabilities such as higher resolution for printing images, and in the case of the Pro version, that ability to open ESRI shapefiles. For a comparision, see Which version of Google Earth is right for you? However, the chart is a bit out of date as it does not mention that the free version can also open GPS files, which is a very useful feature for education..

Google Earth is also available for free as an application programming environment (API) that can be used to create applications that run in a web browser, using JavaScript. This version is known as the Google Earth API.

Google Earth provides search capabilities and can the ability to pan, zoom, rotate, tilt and tilt the view of the Earth. It also offers tools for creating new data and a growing set of layers of data, such as volcanoes and terrain, that can be displayed in the view.

Google Earth is not a Geographic Information System (GIS) with the extensive analytical capabilities of ArcGIS or MapInfo.

Obtaining Google Earth

Google Earth is available for free as well as for purchase as the Plus and Pro upgrades at http://earth.google.com/. Non-profit organizations with 501(c)(3) status assigned by the Internal Revenue Service can apply for a Google Earth Pro grant to receive free licenses. Educational institutions can request free Google Earth Pro licenses through the Google Earth Education Initiative. Google Earth is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Free BSD. Google Earth Enterprise is available for on-site deployment of custom Google Earth databases to help organizations with imagery and other geospatial data.This product is probably beyond the need of most educational venues.

Why Use Google Earth for Education?

Google Earth is easy to use and maps a great deal of information that applies to topics that are presented in educational settings. By placing this information together in a geographic context, it facilitates understanding of the Earth system and the many subject areas that comprise it, ranging from natural sciences to social sciences, history, art, engineering and any other topic that has a geographic component. Information that can be displayed on Google Earth includes the layers offred from Google's database and a huga amount of data offered by the Google Earth Community and on other web sites.

With Google Earth, students can browse casually on their own or engage in structured inquiry-based explorations individualy or in teams. Since Google Earth is available for free download on all major operating systems, students can use it in school as well as for homework or fun. Students can easily create their own data and present the information as a data file, or as a saved image for incorporation into oral presentations or reports.

Educators can use Google Earth directly as a presentation tool for classes or as a means of saving graphics for use in lectures. They can also use it to research topics for use in any educational venue.

Google Sketchup is a program for creating, modify and sharing 3D models of buildings, bridges, and other structures. The models can be placed on thr map in Google Earth.

Since Google Earth does not offer most analytical capabilities of a full-featured geographic information system, such as ArcGIS or MapInfo, it is not appropraite for all educational contexts. Alan Glennon wrote two essays, for and aganst, respecively, the practice of promoting Naive Geography, the field of study that is concerned with formal models of the common-sense geographic world, in the classroom. "Naive Geography is a necessary underpinning for the design of GISs that can be used without major training by new user communities such as average citizens, to solve day-to-day tasks".

How to Use Google Earth for Education

Becoming Familiar with Google Earth

Educators, students, and members of the general public who plan to use Google Earth should learn certain essentials in order to make their experience enjoyable and effective. The Google Earth User Guide provides introductory information about the user interface and details about its features on html format, printable pdf format, and in videos. The Google Earth Help Center will also help you get started and will continue to serve a s a useful reference later on. There are also a number of third-party guides, including the slightly outdated book, Google Earth for Dummies, and the University of South Florida's Tech-Ease Google Earth Basics Tutorials. KoKae Screencasts also offers Google Earth tutorials. Educators may also be interested in Designing and Creating Earth Science Lessons with Google Earth. Google Earth Lessons also offers and links to a set of Quicktime and other lessons on using Google Earth.

Get the Google Earth Tip Sheet (.pdf)

The main essentials to learn are:

The Gogle Earth Toolbar


The Search Pane offers three tabs to help you fly to places, find businesses or get directions, respectively. To fly to a place, enter the name of the place and click the Begin search button. To find businesses, enter the type of business, and click the Begin search button. To get directions, enter the start and end points in the From and To fields and click the Begin search button.

For more information, see Finding Places and Directions.



You can use the navigation controls and the mouse for panning, zooming, rotation, and tilting the view

For more information, see Navigating in Google Earth:

Using Layers

Using Layers: Using the information in the Google Earth databases for infromation about features such as volcanoes, roads, and othe places of interest.


Adding and Creating Content

Adding Content: Adding existing data from the KML Gallery to the map.

Once these techniques are familiar, the following skills will be useful for collecting, creating, organizing, and saving information

Marking Places: Making points with placemarks

Creating a new placemark
Saving a place as a KMZ or KML file.



Using Google Earth

Google Earth Tip Sheet

The Google Earth Community

The Google Earth Community offers a wealth of information and and mappable data through its forums. It is important, though, to be aware that anyone can join the community and offer information, so those who use the information need to be savvy consumers, just as is true with other sources of information on the web and in other media. The forums each consist of threads, each of which is a discussion initiated by a member of the community. Each thread is initiated by an original post (OP), which may be accompanied by additional posts known as replies.

Some of the forums are designated as moderated. Only moderators can initiate threads in these forums, however, sometimes moderators select what they regard as high-quality threads from the non-moderated forums to move to the moderated ones. Moderators monitor all the threads in all the forums, and may move objectionable ones to less prominent forums. In the moderated forums, each new post to an existing thread is examined before is is made viewable by the community as a whole.

Of special interest to educators and their students are the non-moderated forums classified under the Education heading in the Main Index. This consists of the three forums Students, Educators, and Tools. The Educators forum is described as a "Discussion area for educators using Google Earth". But all of the other forums, especially the moderated ones and the non-moderated Current Events forum provide text, graphics, and mappable data that can be used in educational venues.

Posts to the forums often include attached files, In most cases, these are KMZ or KML files that can be opened directly in Google Earth to display data in the 3D Viewer. Some of the atatched files, though are ZIP archives that may contain other content scuh as lesson plans.

Anyone can read the threads in the Google Earth Community forums, but only members can create posts. It is simple to fill out the form to join as a new user.

Keyhole Markup Language (KML)

Keyhole Markup Language (KML) is a file format used to display geographic data in an earth browser, such as Google Earth, Google Maps. Google's KML Documentation provides information about this format. When a user saves content from the Search or Places pane in a file, the information may be saved in a KML or KMZ file. A KMZ file a essentially a zip archive of KML content, and possibly accompanying images.

Other Groups and Blogs

There are many other interesting sources of information in addition to the Google Earth Community.

The Google Lat Long Blog offers news and other information about Google Earth, Google Maps, and geographic topics.

Google Earth Hacks offers forums, news, data, and other services for Google Earth users.

The Google Earth Blog by Frank Taylor offers Google Earth news, commentary, and tips. The news often cosnsists of notifications of imagery updates, for example. Frank is currently sailing around the world and using Google Earth to guide and document his trip.

Stefan Geens offers the Ogle Earth blog, which provides news about virtual globes, with a primary focus on Google Earth.

Google Earth Lessons provides educators with information, ideas, and data to enhance classroom instruction with Google Earth.

Juicy Geography, by Noel Jenkins, is a collection of ideas, lessons and resources for teaching geography.

Workshops and Other Events

A number of venues are dedicated to Google Earth, or more generally geobrowsers, mapping, or digital models of the Earth.

The 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth was held at the University of California at Berkeley from June 5 to 9, 2007. In 2009, the 6th International Symposium on Digital Earth event will be held in Beijing.

In December, 2006, a set of sessions at the American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting in San Francisco focused on The Use of Internet-Based Virtual Globes in the Earth Sciences and Geoscience Applications in Virtual Globes. The 2007 event at the meeting was Using Geobrowsers for Science. In 2008, the sessions will be Visualizing Scientific Data Using KML and Virtual Globes.

References for Additional Information

Google Earth

Google Earth User Guide

Google Earth Community Forums

Google Lat Long Blog

Google Earth Blog

Ogle Earth

Google Earth Lessons

Google Earth and Geoscience Education

Designing and Creating Earth Science Lessons with Google Earth

Notes on the origin of Google Earth

The Word on Snow Crash and Google Earth

Slate: The Trainspotters of Google Earth

Nature: Virtual globes: The web-wide world

5th International Symposium on Digital Earth

Using Google Earth in the Classroom (Tours) (pdf file)

Juicy Geography

Atlas Gloves

Google Sketchup

Naive Geography

Comments on naive geography, part 1

Comments on naive geography, part 2


Links to Draft Material for this Document

Using Google Earth to Study Global Concerns

Google Earth Workshop for Science Teachers

Google Earth Workshop for Science Teachers: Preparation

Google Earth for Science Education